How Does He Do It? - Racing

A visit with Greg Hancock, America’s only 2011 world champion and the oldest in speedway history.

Greg Hancock: America’s only 2011 world champion

Greg Hancock: America’s only 2011 world champion

Check the record, and just about every champion racer has a competition history like a bell curve; that is, he (okay, maybe she) begins as a kid or a junior, moves up the amateur and then the pro ranks. There’s a peak, a national or world title for the very best of the best, then maybe a repeat or two, and then the curve tapers down, a podium here, maybe even a win there, but the results aren’t as good, and not many years later, retirement or a career change.

Why is this so? Those who’ve noted this for season after season, sport after sport, but motorsport most of all, reckon it’s a matter of psychic energy: The top of racing is so tough, so demanding of personal strength and courage and determination, that most can only sustain such effort for a few seasons. They’re still good, they still can outrun me or you; they’re just no longer the best.

Point made, we move to Perris Raceway, oldest dirt track in California, on a cold morning in early March. There’s one rider, Greg Hancock. He’s testing an engine for a younger friend, and he’s stretching his muscles, so to speak, because later this same week, the 2011 FIM Speedway World Champion will head for Europe to prepare his title defense.

About the time you read this, Hancock will be 42 years old. His 2011 title was his second world solo victory. His first came in 1997. Yes, that’s 14 years before his repeat.

What’s maybe even more impressive is that Hancock co-won the World Pairs Speedway series in 1992, 20 years ago, and was part of the team world win in ’92, ’93 and ’98. Plus, he was AMA national champ in 1995, ’98, 2000, ’03, ’04, ’05, ’06 and ’09. So, what we have here isn’t a peak, it’s a plateau.

To see how and why, we need background.

Speedway racing has lots of American links. The sport was imported from Europe in the 1930s and was so popular so quickly that Harley-Davidson produced the CAC speedway racer that matched the specs of today: a race-bred 500cc Single, burning alcohol, no brakes and a rigid rear wheel. Today, 80 years later, national speedway is still listed as Class A, the pro class from way back when.

But, like midget race cars and supermoto bikes, speedway has had ups and downs over the years. Currently, there are hotbeds but not much national action. What the top Americans for the past two or three generations have done is go to Europe, just as the top Chinese basketball players come here; you go where the action is.

Speedway is bigger in Europe than we here can believe. One reason has to be that, unlike in other forms of motorcycle racing, speedway has clubs and teams and leagues, not factories and privateers.

Heroes are one thing. We have the Hailwood, Agostini, Sheene, Roberts, Spencer, Lawson and Rainey eras. We have Springsteen, Parker and Carr. They appear, they win, and they fade away, sometimes with a few sad, failed comebacks.

Teams are different. Say you decided as a kid to root for the Packers or the Cubs. Their rosters have changed many times since then, but you still wear the jerseys and will continue to do so as long as you can sit up and watch the games.

With European speedway’s teams and leagues, the fans sign on as soon as they can and stay there. And the racing season is like baseball, with races a couple times a week rather than, oh, 16 or 18 meets a season. You can race as often as you choose.

In Hancock’s case, he began racing speedway near home in Costa Mesa, California, when he was nine years old. He worked his way up—the promoters and tracks here have been careful to attract kids—and turned pro when he was 17. Then it was off to England, where talent was welcomed and the language similar.

Andreas Jonnson - Greg Hancock - Jaroslaw Hampel

Andreas Jonnson - Greg Hancock - Jaroslaw Hampel

What dazzles about speedway are the opportunities and the logistics. There is so much racing that a top rider can pick several leagues and teams. Hancock rides for Tarnow, a Polish team, and for Piraterna Motala, a Swedish team (whose name translates as Pirates, never mind that “Swedish Pirates” sounds like a contradiction).

In terms of practical living, How He Does It begins with cooperation from all parties. Hancock can ride for two teams because the Swedish league races on Tuesday and the Polish league races on Sunday. Europe is a small continent compared with the Americas, and the airline connections are excellent, so getting from this track to the next isn’t that hard.

Further, we are speaking here of clubs and teams with crews and transporters and rental cars and expense accounts, not like the old romances of gypsy caravans and shared gas money. This extends to the world series, with the championship races all scheduled well in advance. Hancock can, he says, “...arrive at the Grand Prix track on Thursday, practice on Friday, race on Saturday and get back to Poland to race on Sunday.”

An average year sees Hancock in 70 to 75 races—make that meets, because the races are a series of heats. The new and ambitious can compete more often than that, and his maximum year, Hancock recalls, was 128 meets.

Wife Jennie is Swedish, so they have a home in California near the beach and a home in Stockholm (near the airport, one assumes). The kids, sons Wilbur and Bill, go to school in Sweden and in the off-season get to surf, that being one of Hancock’s hobbies, along with motocross and golf.

Life is also made easier by the carved-in-stone technology of speedway. In MotoGP, there’s always a wait for new parts, and in pro motocross, some stock bikes are better than others. But in speedway, you can build a top-end motor for long tracks and a punch-motor for short tracks, and engine swaps can be done in minutes.

Suspension tuning? “Some of our tracks are once a year,” says Hancock, “a soccer stadium, say, and we know they’ll rut up. So, we raise the ride height an inch or so to keep from grounding.” Beyond that, you can vary wheelbase within an inch or so, you can go up a tooth here, down one there.

“There have been some guys who’ve experimented with frames, but that’s about the only changes people have considered.” All of which makes it that much easier to spend most of your track time on the track.

Clearly, Hancock is as good a speedway racer as anyone’s ever been. Which prompts the big question: How has he maintained this level of success for so long? The question has occurred to him, as well.

“Early in my racing, I just wanted to win. When I won the world title the first time, it somehow wasn’t as satisfying as I’d expected. I wanted to keep on winning.”

Then came age: “People started asking me when I would retire. I thought, ‘What?’ It hadn’t occurred to me to retire; it seemed to me I was the age I’d always been.”

(Note: There’s research to the effect that we get our sense of self at the age of 20 or 21, and we keep that sense the rest of our lives, never mind that other people see, oh, an old geezer or a young punk. Just thought it worth mentioning.)

“I still felt 18 but yes, it gets more difficult to have the energy the new kids have, but they race with their wrists. I race with my head.”

Meanwhile, there were a couple of years of discouragement, still in the hunt but not winning as much as he’d planned. “And then I realized I just plain love racing speedway. I let myself enjoy the racing and worried less about the winning. And the second title followed.”

End of practice. Greg Hancock starts packing for Europe, where he plans to win the title again.

Greg Hancock: 2011 FIM Speedway World Champion

Greg Hancock: 2011 FIM Speedway World Champion

Speedway is fast and furious, with brief, intense heats (Greg Hancock #5)

Speedway is fast and furious, with brief, intense heats (Greg Hancock #5)

Track conditions vary, but chassis setup is limited to minor changes in ride height and wheelbase

Track conditions vary, but chassis setup is limited to minor changes in ride height and wheelbase

Hancock (#5) is currently the lone American competing in the world championship

Hancock (#5) is currently the lone American competing in the world championship

Hancock (middle) celebrates his second title in Poland with Andreas Jonnson and Jaroslaw Hampel

Hancock (middle) celebrates his second title in Poland with Andreas Jonnson and Jaroslaw Hampel